In the top-secret and alluring world of espionage, gadgets are crucial. Private investigators, detectives, and government spies all use photography to gather intel and evidence for their clients. Before the iPhone made it easy to snap a photo of someone while feigning a selfie, camera-makers created genius designs for covert photography operations. Concealed in books, disguised as rings, hidden inside a pack of cigarettes, and more these cameras are the envy of any spy.
Lucky Strike Camera
This camera was developed for the United States signal corps between 1949 and 1950 but never made it beyond the prototype stage. Only two of these cameras were made. One was up for auction at Bonhams in 2015 and the other is in the Signal Corps museum in New Jersey. Only slightly smaller than a real pack of Lucky Strikes, the camera could slip easily inside of a real box. The cigarette protruding from the top of the pack acted as the camera’s controls and the light meter is disguised as a packet of Ohio safety matches.
The Taschenbuch (paperback)
Dr. Rudolf Krugener designed this camera in 1888 to look like a book, making it one of the earliest hidden cameras. The lens-shaped hole in the book’s spine is obvious by today’s standards, but when cameras were still rare, not many people were on the lookout for them.
ABC Watch Camera
Made by the German company Steineck in 1948, this camera was a popular tool for private investigators in the 1950s. The wristwatch is equipped with a 12.5mm lens. There are no official records that state this camera was used for espionage, but then again, what good spy keeps records?
Some spies have to hobnob with the wealthy while undercover. Ornate jewelry is a great disguise for a camera. This Soviet-era gold ring spy camera was used by the KGB. The lens is disguised as the ring’s central stone. The camera uses 8mm film and features a variable aperture lens, a working guillotine shutter, and a circular film holder.
Made by Suzuki in 1951, the Echo 8 is a function lighter and subminiature camera all-in-one. The camera was outfitted with a 15mm f3.5 lens and used 8mm film for 20 6x6mm exposures.
Midget Box Camera
This ultra-cheap, lightweight matchbox-sized is likely the best cereal box prize ever made. The camera was made by Bakelite from 1935 until 1943. Fitted with a Taylor-Hobson f10 lens and a 1/30s fixed-speed shutter, the Midget used 16mm roll film to six exposures.
Because women are often underestimated, they make excellent spies. The Petie Vanity I or II camera was designed to fit inside of a lady’s powder case. Made by the German company Kunik, the miniature camera was housed inside of a makeup compact case. One of the two knobs on the top is for a space roll of film and the other is for lipstick. It was available in a variety of metallic colors, snake skin leather, a marble finish, or golden engravings.
Mamiya Pistol Camera
This camera designed to look like half of a pistol was created in 1954 to photograph a person at 10 paces and was used in police training. Only 250 were made. The design was inspired by the 1952 “Bloody May Day Incident” in Tokyo where policemen were injured while photographing protesters. With their eye on the viewfinder, they were not able to be aware of their surroundings. The Japanese police wanted a camera that was easy to aim without raising it to the eye and the pistol shape was used because of the policemen’s gun-handling skills. Although often thought to have been a tool for marksmanship training, that was not its intended use.
For the elegant spy, the Ticka was made by the London company Houghtons between 1905 and 1914 as a metal miniature camera in the form of a pocket watch. It used 18mm roll film contained in a special cardboard drop-in cartridge. The lens had to be covered by a screw-on cap between exposures and no viewfinder was fitted.
Concealed Vest Camera
Fitted into a vest pocket, this camera can be hidden inside of a vest pocket in such a way that the lens looks through the buttonhole. Created in 1886 by German camera maker CP Stirn, this camera was a precursor to the camera-hidden-in-shirt devices that would later be used regularly in sting operations. The camera had to be loaded with a round film plate, 14 or 17 centimeters in diameter.
The Expo Police Camera
Due to its miniature size—about the size of a box of kitchen matches—the Expo Police Camera was ideal for surveillance. Produced in New York, the camera was made from 1911 to 1924. It used a film holder with 12 exposures 1x1 5/8 inches. This unique format required a special police enlarger that enlarged negatives to postcard size photographs.
Minox Sub-Miniature Series
Used by both the CIA from World War II to the 1970s, and the KGB until the 1990s, this Latvian camera was designed to fit into the palm of your hand. The Minox series was the most famous line of spy cameras and used 8x11mm negatives.
With a slogan like “built like a watch—as simple to use” what’s not love about the Compass camera? Manufactured by the Swiss le Coultre et Cie for Compass Cameras, Ltd., London, between 1937 and 1941, the Compass was touted as smaller than a pack of 20 cigarettes. The solid aluminum camera used unique 8-exposure film and had two optical viewfinders, an extinction meter, a spirit level, and a 35mm Kern anastigmat lens.